Charlotte Makoff | KF16 | New Orleans
It’s hard to imagine a dingier, more neglected looking space than Preservation Hall in the French Quarter of New Orleans. The tall windows facing the street are shuttered and have not been washed in years, maybe decades. Paint, in the areas that are or were painted, is blistered and peeling, but most of the walls are covered with ancient pegboard stained a myriad of browns and grays by an accumulation of dust and tobacco smoke.
There are a few paintings of jazz performers on the walls, and it helps to know that they are paintings, because they are covered with the same layer of dross as the walls. Standing in the room, you can’t help wondering if a wrecking ball is going to suddenly smash through one of the walls. All this makes one wonder why people are willing to line up an hour before the 8:00 show, pay the cover and fight for the few benches inside — and if they lose, stand in the back of the small room, arching to see past the heads in front of them.
Every night you can hear voices around you, French, Japanese, German, sometimes Russian, muttering about the state of the room — I know this without speaking any of these languages. Then the musicians enter, generally older men dressed in black pants and white shirts, carrying their instruments in the careless way an old carpenter carries his tools, but sometimes there are younger band members, their hair spiked and their outfits just a touch nattier, and they seem to handle their instruments with bit more reverence.
They sit down in the old straight-backed chairs in the front of the room, and then they start to play. And then you realize you are in the presence of true greatness. On a recent night I was lucky enough to see the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, back from a tour that included Carnegie Hall. They played a selection of standards and less well-known Dixieland pieces, and they were just plain fantastic.
At this point in my blog, I was interrupted by a parade going by in front of the house I’m staying in in the Audubon district. I threw on something presentable and ran out to catch it. It was school kids, primary up to junior high by the look of them, with marching bands, baton twirlers and banners. I asked a woman watching what the occasion was. She said, “You don’t need an occasion.”
A few nights ago, I saw the Survivors Brass Band at Preservation Hall with Kiva CEO Matt Flannery and Jonas Miller from Good Work Network. In between songs, the saxophone player explained that this was the way jazz was originally played, by musicians marching with their horns, paid to perform for weddings, funerals or parties.
In the middle of ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore,’ a sixtyish, very straight-laced looking Japanese man (who later told us he was a professor at the University of Hiroshima) jumped up in front of the band and began dancing in a mad sort of apoplexy. He was an instant hit, both with the band and the crowd.
By the way, if you go to Preservation Hall, and if you’re in New Orleans you’d be a fool not to, make sure before the show you sneak into one of the nearby bars or restaurants to use the facilities, there aren’t any bathrooms in the Hall. Be sure to see the deaf cat that lives in Preservation Hall — it sits on laps and loves to be petted.
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